The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concerned that the Atlantic Flyway population of migratory Canada geese is on the verge of collapse, yesterday suspended the hunting season in Maryland and the rest of the flyway states for a minimum of one year.
State waterfowl managers, however, said that the moratorium could last three years or longer.
"When the flyway council looked at all the newest information," said Joshua Sandt, director of the Wildlife Division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, "[the decision] was a no-brainer.
"The geese are in more trouble than previously thought.
"We assume that the season will be closed until we can get a good cohort of birds on the breeding grounds," Mr. Sandt said.
"So it may be only three years, but it also could be longer."
The closure -- the first Canada goose ban on the East Coast -- also may be the death knell for guides and outfitters on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where goose hunting once was estimated to be a $40 million industry.
"We're out of business, no ifs and or buts about it," said Jay Tarmon, president of the Maryland Waterfowl Outfitters Association. "And if this moratorium lasts more than one year, I doubt it seriously if many of us can come back into it."
"It certainly is a multimillion-dollar industry that suddenly has been shot out from under us by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," said state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican whose district includes all or part of four Shore counties.
The the wildlife service, working with representatives from the states in the flyway, which runs from the Carolinas to Maine, sets frameworks for all waterfowl and migratory bird hunting seasons and bag limits. The vote to close Canada goose hunting for at least one season was unanimous.
The proposed closure will remain open to public comment through Sept. 4, and there is an outside chance that the the wildlife service could alter its proposal. But Mr. Sandt and several guides and outfitters contacted yesterday seem to feel that there will be no hunting for at least one year.
"We [Maryland] really don't have a choice in the matter," Mr. Sandt said. "All the states involved realize it is a bitter pill to swallow, but the vote was unanimous to close down the resource and let it recover."
Lawrence Chanaud, owner of the Hillside Crab House, Restaurant and Motel in Centreville, said his business has declined over the past five or six years as limits have been imposed on Canada goose hunting: "For years, it was one of the biggest sources of money into this community. Now, it's pretty much done."
Ladd Johnson, a Cambridge waterfowl and wildlife consultant, agreed that most Shore businesses already had felt the decline.
"This decline has been going on for some time, as seasons on Canada geese have been gradually getting more restricted," he said. "I think the closure is going to affect the farmer more than anything else, because no one will be leasing their cornfields and agricultural fields for the Canada goose season."
"In general, everybody seems to be accepting it. Nobody is really teed off," said Ray Marshall, a longtime Shore guide and outfitter who spent yesterday afternoon talking with other guides and outfitters.
"It is going to hurt us all, but you just have to grin and bear it."
Last year, Maryland had a 35-day season split into one- and two-bird limits. Outside the Chesapeake region, the flyway states had 70-day seasons split into sessions with one-, two- and three-bird limits.
Migratory Canada geese and goose hunting have been declining in Maryland since the late 1980s, when populations began to decline and breeding success began to falter.
Even so, two weeks ago, the the wildlife service was considering a 10-day season for Maryland, Delaware and parts of tidewater Virginia and as many as 40 days elsewhere in the flyway.
Mr. Sandt said there are several factors that make a closure necessary if Maryland's population of migratory Canada geese is to recover from a decade of poor breeding conditions in summer and hunting of the breeding population while it winters in Maryland.
The strongest indicator of a rapidly failing population of migrant geese, said Mr. Sandt, was the result of the annual survey of breeding pairs late this spring in northern Quebec, which counted only 29,000 pairs, 27 percent below last year's estimate of 40,000 and less than a third of the 1993 count.
Mr. Sandt said counts of Canada geese in Maryland during January also have been misleading biologists, because migrant birds are mixed with a subpopulation of birds that reside year-round in Maryland.
"There is no way to distinguish those resident birds from the migrants," Mr. Sandt said, "and with the resident population increasing, even overtaking the number of migrants, you can count the same number of total birds but actually have a decline in the number of migrants."
The latest the wildlife service estimates, Mr. Sandt said, put 1 million resident Canada geese in the flyway, almost double the 552,000 migrants counted this past winter.
Maryland's midwinter count of Canada geese this year was 259,200, and the state's long-term average before the population began to decline a decade ago was 317,800.
Thomas W. Dodd III, a guide and outfitter in Queen Anne's County since 1981, said the closure will force him to pay a price for the excesses of other hunters.
"I have spent 12 or 15 years building ponds, leaving feed, taking care of the geese, and I haven't seen a decline in their numbers," said Mr. Dodd. "In my case, I feel I am suffering the circumstances of people who have been taking from the geese and not giving anything back."
Mr. Sandt said the possibility of the hunting closure running beyond this season is tied to the life cycle of the Canada goose, which must live for three years before it reaches breeding age.
"They say it is going to be one or two years before they will reopen hunting," Mr. Dodd said. "But if what they say is right about the breeding grounds and needing to get the birds back to breed, then I would not be surprised to see it go five years. It would take that long to rebuild."